How to properly fill and finish a picture frame

Written by chris pink on March 28, 2014 in Picture Framing

The world is inundated with old picture frames that could be brought back to life, but are more often than not thrown away. Feeling guilty about that frame in the attic that’s been handed down through generations, only to end up in your hands as an item of practical despair and woe? In this blog post, we’ll explore how to tell if a picture frame is salvageable, what steps to take to ensure it’ll look the part when it’s filled, and how to finish it in such a way that nobody will ever know.

How to tell if a frame is worth keeping

Let’s say you’ve just found a frame and are wondering if it’s any good. First, ignore the finish of the frame – we’ll get to that in a minute – and examine the corners. Hold the two sides and flex it slightly. Is there any give? Depending on the wood, there should be a small amount of flex, but if you notice that it twists more than a few millimetres or that the corners are particularly loose, you either need to ditch the frame or consider fixing the corners with a nail (not the optimum solution but the best you can do at home without the right equipment).

If the finish isn’t perfect, like we said before, don’t worry. Providing large parts of the frame haven’t been ripped away, nearly all wooden frames can be saved. Don’t worry about large holes that go all the way through the frame either. This can also easily be fixed. Here’s an example of what we mean:

picture frame to be fixed

Preparing to fill and fix a picture frame

Filling and fixing frames is something that comes easy to some and more difficult to others. In principle, filling goes something like this: push filler (Polyfilla, for example) into the gaps, smooth it over and wait for it to dry. In practice, however, it’s wise to remember a few things before you start.

1: filler generally needs something to, for want of a better word, key in to. You can apply filler to smooth surfaces and get it to stick, but the chances of the frame having longevity are greatly increased when you make the surface a little rougher. Making grooves or drilling small holes is never a bad idea, providing the frame is sturdy enough to take it.

2: give yourself enough time. If you only have half-an-hour and you’re in a rush, wait until you have more time. Filler can dry incredibly quickly in hot environments. Which brings us to…

3: once filler has set in stubborn lumps or sharp edges, it requires harder work. Something to be wary of.

4: remember that you may still be able to see the filler once it’s painted. Especially if you’re only giving the frame a single coat of paint and it’s a dark frame featuring white-filled gaps…

Doing the filling and the sanding

Hands are great for applying filler, but ideally you’ll also need something like a credit card, and something sharper to remove filler if it gets in to grooves that you didn’t want filled.

Put the frame down on some newspaper and begin to apply the filler. You can apply it directly from the tube if you’re looking to inject it deep in to the wood, or apply it with the credit card and then use that same card to smooth it over. At this point, it’d be wise to remember that filler can bubble-up and get air pockets in it very easily. This is nothing to panic about. Simply burst the bubbles with something reasonably sharp and keep on going. Don’t worry too much if the initial filler begins to dry and you need to apply more. Providing it’s not completely dry, you should be able to do this fairly easily.

Now you’ve pushed all the filler in, you’ll need to ensure it’s nice and flush with the frame. As we said before, remember that filler has the capacity to dry incredibly hard – so before you leave the frame, have one last look to make sure you’re happy. Leave the frame somewhere cool where it won’t be tampered with, and where the dog can’t carry it off. You may wish to come back after twenty minutes or so to check that no air bubbles have come to the surface.

Sanding down the frame and doing the finishing

Now you’ve done the hard work, you’ll need to…wait, actually, sanding the frame is the hard work!

It’s nothing to be worried about though. Bad at DIY? Always panic when something needs hand-crafting? Have no fear. Most filler made these days is easy to handle and designed for anyone to pick up and use. All you’ll need is some medium and fine-grade sandpaper. Begin with the medium, using this to wear down the rough lumps and bumps, then finish with the fine-grade stuff when it’s time to smooth the filler out.

After that, it’s up to you how you paint or stain the frame. One thing to be aware of is that some stains won’t fully permeate the filler, which could mean that you still see the filler even after several coats of stain. That said, painting often yields more or less perfect results, so it often makes more sense to do this. Emulsion paint works very well. Apply several decent layers of this – waiting for each coat to dry – and then add a touch of beeswax to some cloth and lightly brush it over the frame. This is the ideal way to get a lightly-shiny coat and a great way to give your frame the finishing touch it has craved for years.





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